Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Maryand brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
What You Carry With You
I went back this week and looked at the first sermon I preached here as your pastor. Not the one with the plates... that was my candidating sermon (if you weren't here for the sermon about the plates, ask me about it after church)… but the first one I preached after I officially began my time here as your pastor. I remember feeling a lot of pressure that Sunday... pressure to do well, pressure to be interesting and insightful, pressure to do right by the scripture I was preaching. And, boi, was it a doozy. It was so complicated. It was a part of Matthew 11 that was half annoyed Jesus and half compassionate Jesus. It's not that irritation and compassion don't go together. How many of us have found ourselves both irritated and compassionate over the last couple weeks? That's what Jesus was feeling in that reading. Frustrated with religious leaders in his community and trying to lead with compassion in his life. It was a heavy story from the middle of Jesus' ministry that was about being in the middle, as in, in the midst of ministry. At the beginning of our ministry together, I had been hoping for something a little perkier to start off our time together.
I think I was looking for an optimistic setting-off-on-an-adventure story. Kind of like a "once upon a time" but without the fairytale mess that can follow. But, since I often preach from a preset reading schedule precisely so I will be pushed to preach difficult texts, I went with the text suggested for the day. Four years later, I've been trying to figure out if I would have been more confident then preaching on our Gospel text for today. This story from Mark isn't from the middle of ministry. It's fairly near the beginning. Jesus has been baptized. He has been doing some preaching and healing. He's even gotten some disciples. He has been traveling around the area a bit and has decided to return to his hometown. We're not exactly sure why he came back, but it seems like he's beginning something, and his hometown is as good a place to start as any. On my first Sunday as your pastor, maybe I would have liked to preach about something starting. Or, maybe not. It turns out that this was not the most auspicious of beginnings.
Did you hear what happened in this story? Jesus was back home preaching at the synagogue and everybody wondered who they heck he was. I mean, they knew who he was. He was a carpenter. They knew his brothers James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. They saw his sisters crowded around. They knew his mama. Most of all, they knew that skilled in wood-working though he may be, there was no way he should have had the confidence to preach the way he did. How could a boy from this neighborhood grow up to be a man who could work such miracles? There was no way he could. They had changed his diapers. They knew all the stories of his teenage indiscretions. There was no way they could take him seriously. So, scripture tells us, they didn't.
Their inability to take Jesus seriously ends up having real consequences. Did you notice the part where Jesus is unable to heal anyone there? It said, "he could do no deeds of power except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them." A scholar I read this week said we need to pay particular attention to this part. In the first five chapters of Mark, Jesus is able to do all kinds of things that demonstrate his power. Just last week we heard about the woman who was healed after touching his cloak and another girl he healed. In the first five chapters, he was powerful enough that just touching his clothes could heal someone. He was powerful enough that even death could not stop him. Why, all the sudden, wouldn't Jesus be able to live out such power? The scholar I read this week, Bonnie Bowman Thurston, says it has everything to do with what the people believe.
Let’s look back at some of the other works of power Jesus performed. In Mark 2:5, a man is brought to Jesus to be healed. His friends actually lower him through a hole in the roof of building in order to get to Jesus. Jesus saw the faith of this man, and the friends who lowered him through the hole, and said his sins were forgiven and he told him to pick up his mat and walk. And, the man did. When the woman touched Jesus in 5:34, he said that her faith is what really made her well. Even after this encounter in chapter 6, in chapter 7, when a Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, it is her stalwart faith and stubborn hope that convinced Jesus to do so. Let us also not forget that when a father brought his son to Jesus to be healed in chapter 9, Jesus told the man that all things can be done for the one who believes. Immediately, the man cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief." Jesus healed that man’s son, too.
Did you hear the key element in all of those stories? Belief. In Mark, healing only comes with believing. Power isn't something Jesus inflicts on you without your consent. Every time he speaks, it is an invitation to believe. Those who cannot hear him... who choose not to listen... they miss out on the transformation. When Jesus went home, only a couple people were able to be healed. They believed. Everyone else, they thought they knew Jesus too well for that. How could the carpenter heal anyone? How could Mary's boy preach like that? They were too distracted by what they thought they knew to be able to receive something that would give them new life. How could Jesus start something new with them if they wouldn't believe? The power was always in the belief.
Interestingly, even with the setbacks in his home town, Jesus doesn't stop teaching, though he doesn't stay in town, either. He begins to travel to other villages in the community. It’s like if Winthrop was his home, but he went to Wayne and Monmouth and Readfield, maybe even as far as Fayette and Mount Vernon. Interestingly, he only taught these other towns. He did not do the signs of wonder and healings. It’s like the experience in his hometown taught him that these were his people. They knew him too well to believe. But, he also didn't want to leave them without the possibility of transformation. You see, even if they couldn't believe him, they might believe others. So, he sent out the twelve.
Because divine power in most fully made manifest in relationship, Jesus sent his followers out in sets of two and asked that they be fully reliant on other people's hospitality while they did the work of the Gospel. They could only take a walking stick, the clothes on their back, and the shoes on their feet. This was an urgent calling. They didn't have time to gather provisions. God would provide for them through other people. They were to take the hospitality offered to them, not travel around to see who had the cushiest house for them to stay in. He also gave them another direction. He said, “Don't try to make them let you stay if they can't hear you. Leave. Shake the dust of their homes off your feet. Do not even carry their unbelief with you on to the next, possibly holy ground.” Jesus then gave them the power to heal and drive out unclean spirits, work that only he had been doing up until this point. Off they went, and they healed people and drove away demons. They did the work that others would not have let Jesus do by himself. Their own faith in Jesus helped them carry his message in a way the people could finally hear it.
I began today's sermon remembering my first sermon as your pastor. In that sermon, I talked about how Christ's call to compassion may look heavy and unwieldy, like the yoke we'd find on oxen. Today, four years into our ministry together, I think it's worth noting that sometimes we may have an idea about how we might start a ministry, like Jesus did in his hometown, and sometimes, the first idea doesn't actually work all that well. Sometimes what we're preaching isn't connecting because the people can't hear us. They have too many preconceived notions about who we are and what we could possibly know about healing and wholeness. If the people aren't hearing us, we may have to be like Jesus and find another way to do the Gospel. Jesus sent out the twelve and asked that they fully rely on God and other people. What is our next strategy for sharing Christ's message of healing and wholeness? Are we the ones being sent out, two by two, or are we training up the ones who will be sent?
Jesus' message is worth sharing, even if initially others may not be able to hear us. They didn't always hear Jesus. But, he made sure that everyone got the chance to hear and believe. He found a way to get more people to hear. We can, too. Who are the people who need to hear God's word of love and justice in this place? How can we make sure they hear it from people who they can trust and believe? Who are you able to go to with just a walking stick and sandles, and invite to believe?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Cláudio Carvalhaes: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3729
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5186
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.